by Tara Betts, PhD

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Before I put any words to paper to talk about Danez Smith’s writing, I think about a photo snapped of this poet laughing in the snow, a slightly cupped hand reaching to cover the wattage of a smile, and it is sweet. Almost like watching your younger brother trying to look hard, then bursting into laughter. Smith is young, alive, and looks so happy that it makes me smile, and I say this is beautiful because I have never believed “beautiful” is an adjective reserved for women, but this photo does not portray a “pretty boy.” Smith writes love poems to deconstruct Black death, whether it arrives from a police officer’s bullet or courses through bloodstreams with the disease that has no cure. So, when I think of that image of a young Black person, an openly gay young Black person, smiling in the snow, it feels more than beautiful—it feels goddamn victorious.

As I was rereading all of the poems in Smith’s [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014) and Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015), I thought about director Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. What startled me most in this movie was the gaps—how Baldwin’s queerness (and Lorraine Hansberry’s quiet lesbian identity) was skated over like a veneer of visible ice that no one was really paying attention to, even though the ice is clearly there as part of the skating experience. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, because there were not only pages missing from this unfinished Baldwin script, which rings prophetic and contemporary at times, but this other absence makes the gaps in the story even wider.

Why would a photo of the poet and the requisite cameo of James Baldwin be so important to discussing the work of Danez Smith? With declarative, bold, language and adept turns of imagery, Smith’s poems begin filling in the gaps of omission established in works like Peck’s film. I would venture further to say that Smith is addressing the void left by poets like Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Assotto Saint. In poetry from the past couple of decades, there was no possibility for a longer narrative, and after the deaths of so many artists, how does one find language of survival? However, the new wave of gay poets has time and opportunity to shape a longer narrative. Smith is among contemporaries like Jericho Brown, Phillip B. Williams, Saeed Jones, and Rickey Laurentiis; they are young, healthy, prolific, consistently writing, and teaching other poets. In this perpetuation of the word, readers have a chance to capture an extended moment beyond one book, or the phrase “posthumous publication.” Beyond the exploration of sexuality, these poets are dealing with dilemmas central to how Blackness is defined in America—police brutality, masculinity (toxic and otherwise), popular culture—and reaffirming those who are often dehumanized.

The new wave of gay poets has time and opportunity to shape a longer narrative.

So, if you cannot deal with how Smith teeters on the precipice between death and celebration for another breath, then I don’t know why you even came to a poetry book at all. This teetering is the preamble to Smith’s second full-length collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017). The title itself states another imperative that some might mistake as a syntactic move typically employed in slam poems, but Smith varies the technique enough to create an imagined reality that steps away from the expectations of editors who would like the click bait of “another police brutality poem.”

The opening poem “summer, somewhere” and the poems that follow simultaneously employ grace and bluntness to disinvite people who are intrigued by trauma. “summer, somewhere” tells how “boys brown/as rye” will be addressed: “please, don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better. / we say our own names we pray. / we go out for sweets & come back.” In a lived reality, we know Trayvon Martin never came back after sweet tea and Skittles, but in this alternate world, the boys are revived and choose new names. The collection returns to avoiding death consistently; Smith alludes to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” with phrases like “dear empty Chucks,” which evoke a pair of sneakers thrown over a power line, or family members looking at shoes onscreen long after the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. When Spike Lee revealed this latter scene in the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, viewers mourn what is lost, but Don’t Call Us Dead surpasses loss and moves toward resurrection and an alternative universe. Readers are instead given lines like “do you know what it’s like to live … paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”

Smith builds on re-envisioning life through a series of epistolary poems like “Sweet Cain” and “my stolen lover” and deliberates on the latent fatality of contracting HIV that has become a treatable illness without a cure. HIV “is not a death sentence,” Smith reiterates, but it looms in the poet’s consciousness within the lines of the latter half of Don’t Call Us Dead. Much like the poet’s understanding of what it means to live as a Black person in America, Smith’s reconciliation of living with HIV is a resistant acceptance:

listen
i’ve accepted what i was given

be it my name or be it my ender’s verdict.
when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.

i spent my life arguing how i mattered
until it didn’t matter.

who knew my haven
would be my coffin?

dead is the safest i’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.

That last line, “i’ve never been so alive,” claims another sort of living for which there is no name. Smith articulates what poets like Hemphill and Dixon were not able to live long enough to witness, which is more than the public acknowledgment of LGBT rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, or pharmaceutical developments like Pre-exposure prophylaxis (commonly known as PrEP), but the rise of hip hop and varied multiplicities of masculinity as well. Smith describes men who could easily be on a basketball court together, dressed like any other men, but he evokes their sensuality, tenderness, and potential moments for attraction, and in this way reimagines life before death, too.

The other sad inevitability that Smith articulates, even as the poems reanimate and rename living, is how the world continues to act as if lives like Smith’s are expendable:

o the boys. they still come
in droves. the old world

keeps choking them. our new one
can’t stop spitting them out.

What happens in a world where boys are constantly expelled? What happens when such boys can meet any number of demises? Smith clearly identifies at least one extended sense of loss in lines like this:

i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news.
i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner
until light outweighs us, & we become it

In those three lines, Smith rejects stereotyping, relays a common symptom of HIV, poetically describes death, and reimagines the mystical light that Black men embody, both acknowledging the loss and reclaiming it.

Beyond loss, there is still sensuality and sex. The poems “last summer of innocence” and “a note on Vaseline” entangle the homoerotic with the vestiges of childhood innocence as a sort of transition into poems that explore the terrain of Black gay relationships with poems like “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths,” “at the down low house party,” and “O nigga O.” These direct titles speak to how detached yet immediate desire and objectification can be, especially as they share a section with the mythmaking of sex in “seroconversion” and the haiku-like “fear of needles.” The poem “recklessly” references PrEP, and playfully alludes to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Bill Clinton’s failed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” Every one of these references leads back to sensuality and sex, acts of life and death. Yet, like a specter, the sentence “it’s not a death sentence anymore” keeps sifting its way through the poems.

That poignant convergence of mortality, tender beauty, and objectification, even in death, is challenged again and again in this collection. In “elegy with pixels & cum,” which is dedicated to the late gay porn star Javier “Chocolate Kid” Bravo, each line ends with “kid” as its epistrophe—an affectionate term not just for a younger person, but someone a person knows on their block, a person that one might call a friend. As “elegy …” progresses, Smith shows how people dehumanized Javier Bravo (“men gather in front of screens to jerk & mourn”) even though he was “someone’s, kid.” When this section of the book concludes with the three-page poem “litany with blood all over,” Smith employs anaphora for each idea with the phrase “test results say” until the poem begins talking about blood and becomes a pool of typography where the phrases “my blood” and “his blood” literally merge.

Smith does not flinch at blood or the loss of it, instead embraces the complication of his condition, even as this book progresses toward its end with lines like this from “it began right here”:

ghosts have always been real
& i apprentice them now. they say it’s not a death-sentence

like it used to be. but it’s still life. i will die in this bloodcell.
i’m learning to become all the space i need. i laughed today.”

Although there is a clear progression from the tenderness in [insert] boy and the imaginative alternatives in Black Movie, the spare lines and visual play in Don’t Call Us Dead are definite markers of a maturing voice that connects its experiences and those of its precursors aesthetically and in terms of identity as a gay man and Black poet. How else could Smith close a book like Don’t Call Us Dead with “crown” as a crown of sonnets that reclaims the lives that Black boys might aspire to if they live? Even the cover of this book extends this idea of reaching toward space, more room to live. A Black man is reaching for another levitating Black man raised, possibly to heaven, by a simple balloon. They are both naked, beautiful, and vulnerable, which is far too often what men are never allowed to be, and though in this crippling they experience another kind of slow death, Smith clearly tells us what no one is allowed to call the “us” he cherishes in these poems. Moreover, the fact that Smith is present, vital and vigorously suggesting that Black lives must be both chronicled and reimagined fully, is itself, a victory.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompts


 

Betts_in_blue-200pxDr. Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit (Trio House Press, 2016) and Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009). She is also one of the co-editors of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century (2Leaf Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Essence, Nylon, and numerous anthologies. Betts holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and a MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. She teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago and serves as part of the MFA faculty at Chicago State University.

by Lauri Ramey, PhD

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Vol. 1, Iss. 1 | Gregory Pardlo | Summer 2017

Some of the most interesting and exciting verbal and cognitive effects in the poetry of 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo are generated by creative blends, where two or more disparate input spaces are brought into startling conjunction to reveal new meanings not found in either of the domains being compared. Important revelations about Pardlo’s poetry and poetics—as well as African diasporic representations of space, time, and experience—may be discerned from these innovative metaphorical juxtapositions. Pardlo’s poetry uses an exceptional array of forms and styles for varied purposes, including linear and sentimental personal narratives, extended philosophical meditations, ekphrastic poems and still lives, evocations of music, and literary portraits and tributes. “What is the self?” is one of the central questions of Pardlo’s poetics. He frequently uses conceptual integration, which is performed by creative blends, to both raise and try to answer that question. We find plentiful examples of polysemy, double-scope blending, counterfactuals, fictive motion, and compression, among other operations, which enable us to move from intimate to global realms, embodiment to abstraction, and within and outside of time and space.

Here I am going to focus on his talent for producing creative blends that use polysemy—playing with words that have multiple, and often quite different, meanings—as one of Pardlo’s most effective techniques to generate unstable planes of identity, location, and chronology. Creative blends are plentiful in Pardlo’s two collections, where his assymetrical and disjunctive metaphors often use polysemy—itself a type of lexical trickster figure—which can require significant interpretive work to derive sense. An example of one of his creative blends drawing on polysemy is “conjuring away his essence like some bootleg golem,” from the poem “Landscape with Intervention,” the opening poem of his first collection, Totem (2007). We start with an African survival of ghostly spirits in the phrase “conjuring away his essence,” which evokes the conjure man or witch doctor from macumba, Santeria, or voudun, who practices medicine using mystical spiritual practices. The space of this African diasporic belief system is brought into conjunction with the time and place of Prohibition in early 20th century American culture when alcohol was made illegal and the term “bootleg” was popularized. The word “bootleg” plays on the polysemous character of the word “spirits” in its meaning as banned alcoholic beverages. A third space is brought into the creative blend through the incorporation of ancient Jewish mysticism. “Golem” is a mystical anthropomorphic figure, first named in the biblical Psalms, who is mythically created from an inanimate substance. So, to selectively cross-map the relevant features of the spaces, times, and inputs of the domains brought into conjunction, we can understand the blended space to refer to human fears of unsanctioned, otherworldly, forbidden, and potent forces operating in the interstices between embodied anthropomorphism and inanimate substances—the thin line between clay and flesh—and the terror of being deprived of the human spirit through unholy means.

In Pardlo’s verse, polysemy enables us to move seamlessly between what we perceive as literal and figurative realms, which confirms the claims of Mark Turner that there are not different cognitive processes involved in accessing these realms, though we may—through what he calls folk processes—perceive them as fundamentally different. According to Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier, polysemy is “an essential manifestation of the flexibility, adaptability, and richness in meaning potential that lie at the very heart of what a language is and what it is for.” Turner and Fauconnier claim that “most polysemy is invisible,” which makes its recognition a subtle and powerful tool to understand the cognitive complexity of Pardlo’s poetry.

Through this technique, readers are constantly kept off balance, stimulated, and challenged to produce a series of new meanings and insights which accrue special weight in an African diasporic context.

By foregrounding this level of creativity which is omnipresent in language use, Pardlo ignites processes that allow us to alternately connect and disconnect time and space, stasis and movement, meaning and mystery, individualism and universalism, and other apparent dichotomies that are constantly melded and separated in the processes of cognition. Through this technique, readers are constantly kept off balance, stimulated, and challenged to produce a series of new meanings and insights which accrue special weight in an African diasporic context. The opening poems of both of his collections offer vivid examples of Pardlo’s use of polysemy to initiate and destabilize the decoding process. For two extended examples of how this process takes place, we can turn to the word “role” in “Landscape with Intervention” (Totem) and the word “born” in “Written by Himself” (Digest, 2015).

“Role” is a spectacularly polysemous word with especially important associations in the fields of sociology and theater. In sociological terms, it means one’s purpose or function—the expected set of behaviors for a person’s identity or status, the behavioral patterns that locate an individual in society, one’s set of customary duties, and relational and familial positions. In theatrical terms, it denotes the distinction between an actor and the part or character being played. These definitions gain additional layers of meaning in a racialized context, where “to perform blackness” has both sociological and theatrical implications and associations. These understandings include the racial masking that accompanies double consciousness, and the wearing or adopting of a mask to either foreground or hide blackness.

Consider this excerpt from “Landscape with Intervention” in Pardlo’s strategic employment of multiple senses of the word “role” [my emphasis in the bolded phrases]:

Accordingly, among actors, fathers
encouraged the mingling of identity and act by raising
their sons in dedication

to a single role—the way craftsmen took their trade to be
their name: carpenter, tailor, the ubiquitous
smith—and stack eternal odds in their favor: that the Calvinist
god’s estimation of the man match the quality of that man’s
performance in the role he’d been given. Such piety doubling
as social currency, suggesting an audience of more than
just One. The American

actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, developed a role in the late
1820’s which he dedicated his life to performing. He covered
his white face in burnt cork and dubbed himself “Jim Crow”.
His influence was epidemic.

The first use of “role” in this excerpt—“dedication to a single role”—is sociological and abstract. It refers to an Aristotelian melding of action and identity by positing the capability to choose and perform a specific role in life to which one is dedicated. This process is genealogical and cyclical, as each generation of fathers encourages the mingling of self and performance (identity and act) by “raising their sons in dedication” to a single role. In a Calvinist sense, the successful performance of this single role defines the quality of a man.

The second use of “role”—“man’s performance in the role he’d been given”—is both sociological and theatrical. It suggests the passive receipt of an assigned task or identity, and the virtue of fulfilling that role well, in sociological and/or theatrical terms. In an African American context, where this condition could readily define the expectations for a slave, the double-voicing of this usage of “role” has ominous undertones, leading to the third appearance of “role” in this excerpt.

The third use of “role”—“developed a role”—refers to a particular theatrical part, which in this case, encourages practices of institutional racism by promulgating the minstrelsy, burlesque of black physical appearance, racist stereotyping, and perpetuation of discrimination that were performed in the context of “Jim Crow.” In the blended space, we therefore must cross-map racial, sociological, and theatrical roles to derive meaning. Filial obedience and respect are displayed by choosing a role in life to fulfill successfully. This use of “role” is juxtaposed with the historical conditions of racial discrimination that thrust generations of African Americans into performing the role of the slave, which denied them right to choose their own role in life.

We find a similar process in the opening poem of Pardlo’s Pulitzer Prize winning second collection, Digest, which offers us at least fourteen different uses and senses of the phrase “I was born,” and polysemous meanings of the word “born,” in this single-stanza poem whose title alludes to the common subtitle for slave narratives, “Written by Himself.”

As a few examples of Pardlo’s powerful manipulation of the multiple senses of the word “born” and phrase “I was born,” the poem opens with “I was born in minutes” (l. 1), which suggests the physical act of the speaker’s own birth. In “I was born to rainwater and lye,” “born” refers to the life that awaited the speaker, where even the bathing practices were rough. “I was born across the river” (l. 3) describes the geographical location of the speaker’s place of birth. “I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry” [l. 12] describes the speaker’s birth as a slave in antebellum America by referring to the accounting documentation of slaves by their “owners.” The examples proliferate from line to line. As the poem develops, we make sense of the polysemy by recognizing that the speaker was born to a family legacy, a history of African American struggle, a place in American history, and an identity as a self-defining and self-articulating individual through the mechanism of language.

Through his use of polysemy, what is Pardlo blending? He employs the creativity that is integral to language to produce poems that examine multiple possibilities, foreclose few, and open what is most painfully revealed. In the context of African diasporic and African American experience, geography, identity, and history, Pardlo’s use of the words “role” and “born” provide resonant correspondence by evoking the phrases “the role one was born for” and “born for a role.” Each phrase carries with it a burden and an opportunity; we are graced by the poetry of Gregory Pardlo to be faced with the terror and beauty of both.


Notes and Works Cited

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. “Polysemy and Conceptual Blending.” In Polysemy: Flexible Patterns of Meaning in Mind and Language, ed. Brigitte Nerlich, Vimala Herman, Zazie Todd, and David Clarke. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003, 79-94: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~coulson/203/turner-polysemy.pdf, accessed June 2, 2017.

Pardlo, Gregory. Digest. New York: Four Way Books, 2015.

—————. Totem. Philadelphia: The American Poetry Review, 2007.

For a helpful summary of the key processes and concepts of blending, see the entry by Gilles Fauconnier for The Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, accessed on May 31, 2017:  http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~faucon/BEIJING/blending.pdf


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompts


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Dr. Lauri Ramey is the Xiaoxiang Scholar Program Distinguished Professor at Hunan Normal University in China, and founding director of the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics at California State University, Los Angeles. Her books include What I Say (University of Alabama Press, 2015), The Heritage Series of Black Poetry, 1962–1975 (Routledge, 2012), Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone (2006).